Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Revision FAQ: How do you find readers?

The second most common question I ask doesn't apply strictly to revision, but in general, how does one find reliable critique partners?

There's no right or wrong way--and often times a fair amount of luck goes into finding a good partnership. But here's what's helped me, if you're on the hunt:


  • Get involved with the writing community
    • Every single one of my critique partners was found by my involvement in the writing community. Every. Single. One. 
      • Forums
        • My first critique group came from finding people with similar writing interests as mine on the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award forum. None of us won the competition, but we did find a hugely beneficial critique group.
        • Other popular forums include Verla Kay and Absolute Write
        • Warning: Don't just jump at every Joe Schmoe out there asking for a partner. Take time to make sure you are at similar levels, similar writing tastes, etc.
      • SCBWI
        • My state has an active ListServ; I found one critique group after there was an call for new members on the ListServ. 
        • Advantage: people on the ListServ are (probably) more dedicated to writing as they're members of SCBWI
        • Disadvantage: There are many more picture book writers than anything else in SCBWI (at least in my area) which means if you write MG/YA, you might have trouble finding someone in your genre.
      • Blogging
        • When you blog, you show people your writing style. People with similar writing styles and interests will read your blog. Participate in the comments (something I'm struggling to do more of) and find people who are like you, writing-wise.
  • Reach out--ask
    • Don't be afraid to approach a fellow writer. I'm not saying that JK Rowling is looking for a critique partner. But if there's a blogger who has a project that interests you, shoot her an email and offer a swap. 
      • Keep in mind:
        • Be polite. Be willing to accept if the person you ask says "no."
        • Offer something in return. Don't expect them to critique your work without offering to critique theirs in return.
        • Leave yourself a way out. I recommend not starting with a full manuscript swap (more on that below).
  • Use writing samples and trial periods
    • No matter how similar you think you are to the potential critique partner, there's a chance that it just won't work out. In order to avoid bad break-ups, try this:
      • Request a sample first
        • Pretend like you're both agents--ask for a query and three sample chapters. If the writing is something you can work with in that sample, good chances are you can take on a whole manuscript swap. But if you hate the sample (for whatever reason--it's not your style, you dislike the genre, the work is too bad OR too good), then mutually agree to move on from there.
          • It's much better to waste a couple of hours on a sample project than days or weeks on a longer one.
      • Create (and stick to) a schedule
        • It sucks when you swap pages and you finish the project in a week, but it takes the partner a month. Or if you know you have a time conflict and need longer, but the partner's pestering you for speed. Agree ahead of time on a schedule, and stick to it.
  • Figure out what critique style works best for you
    • Critique groups/alpha readers
      • These groups take small samples of work (i.e. a set number of chapters) and swap them at regularly scheduled meeting (i.e. bi-monthly).
      • If you need to finish the first draft and need direction as you write, use these people
        • Advantages:
          • Helps you finish the first draft
          • Keeps you on schedule
          • Helps you create a more polished draft as you write
          • Gives you direction as you go
        • Disadvantages:
          • Slower pace--it may take a year or more to finish if you only swap a few chapters at a time, making this less appropriate if you've already got a finished manuscript, or are a quick writer.
          • Because they're not seeing the manuscript as a whole, some overall themes/motifs, etc., may be ignored or lost in critique
          • Greater chance for members to slack on schedule
            • I have never had a critique group where every member was as active and participated on the same level. I have always had at least one member who wouldn't provide samples frequently enough, or who slacked on critiques.
    • Beta Readers
      • These readers read a rough draft of the manuscript, reading the whole book at one go. 
      • If you have a finished manuscript you want to take to the next level, use these people.
        • Advantages
          • You get a great sense of how your manuscript stands overall.
          • There's less focus on the minutia an more focus on the actual story--which is more important.
        • Disadvantages
          • Whole manuscript reads take time--sometimes more time than you want to spend. Agree on a schedule before you sign up.
          • If this is your first time working with someone, then you might not find out until the whole critique is over whether or not the person is helpful to your writing.
    • Gamma Readers
      • These are your final readers, the ones who let you know that it's done and ready to be submitted.
      • If you have already revised one manuscript (either through crit groups or Beta Readers) and just want to know if you've fixed it correctly and the manuscript is ready, these readers are for you.
        • Advantages:
          • Confidence boost--they tell you to get the manuscript out the door
          • Ask them to look for faults you tried to fix previously, so you know if you have actually fixed them.
        • Disadvantages:
          • They may say it's not ready--so you're going back to the drawing board.
          • Avoid using previous readers on this--get a fresh set of eyes, or the readers may be blinded by past version of the manuscript
  • Don't be afraid to "break up"
    • I have been in several crit groups before that just, for some reason or another, didn't work
    • You don't want to be rude, but you don't want to waste your professional time
    • Treat critique group as professional partnerships--if it doesn't work, move on
      • Don't be rude--explain why the group isn't working, then firmly back away
      • Maintain ties with people in the group who did work for you.
        • I was in a critique group once that I hated. One member in particular ruined it for me. She was rude, never took direction, and we clashed terribly. But there was one person in the group in particular whose writing style was good and who meshed well with me. I left the group, but kept the person as a friend and a beta reader.
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